Reflecting on my positionality

Faculty of Social Sciences
From the Field

By Emma

Student, Masters International Development and Globalization

Map of the world
“One of my biggest concerns before starting my internship was the language barrier.”

Emma, Masters International Development and Globalization
Internship Country: Myanmar, posted in Thailand
Canadian and local NGO: Forum of Federations

Before I embarked on my internship, I was asked to develop three learning questions to guide my experience. For one of my questions, I decided to investigate how my positioning as a Chinese Canadian would affect my interactions at work. So, in my final blog post I’d like to reflect on this question and the ways in which my identity (ethnic, national, and linguistic) affects my day-to-day life in Chaing Mai.

One of my biggest concerns before starting my internship was the language barrier. I don’t speak Burmese; however, all my colleagues speak Burmese as their first language and most of our work is conducted in Burmese. In order to address the language barrier, I knew that I would have to make a special effort to be more outspoken and vocal. For example, if I don’t understand something then I need to ask for clarification.

Luckily the language barrier has not been a major challenge. From day one, everyone at the Forum of Federations Myanmar office has made me feel welcome and comfortable. They have gone above and beyond to include me in their conversations and activities. I know that their warmth and openness has been the #1 reason my internship experience has been so positive and I feel very fortunate.

Outside the office, the language barrier has been slightly more challenging. Although I have learned some essential Thai phrases, I mostly rely on google translate when ordering food or asking for help. Often when people discover that I cannot speak Thai they will switch Mandarin. However, I do not speak Mandarin, and this can lead to additional confusion. As a Chinese adoptee have always wanted to learn Mandarin, and this internship experience has inspired me to start lessons.

Another thing I’ve been grappling with is how Western concepts of development conflict with local understandings of development. Obviously, this is a very important issue in the NGO space, and I wondered how Forum of Federations navigated that dynamic. As a person who was raised in Canada and received a western education, I knew that my internship would also have implications related to global development cooperation at Forum of Federations.

Throughout the course of my internship, I have learned about the importance of inclusive partnerships and locally led development. For example, I’ve witnessed close cooperation between the local team and international experts. And in terms of my own positionality as a Canadian grad student, I think it is important for me to check and acknowledge my privilege daily. I also recognize that it is my job to listen and learn from my colleagues whose breadth of knowledge far exceeds my own.

Overall, I am incredibly grateful for this experience. I cannot believe how much I have grown in the past 12 weeks. I know that I will carry these lessons with me as I continue my studies and work.